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   Chapter 18 No.18

The Roll-Call By Arnold Bennett Characters: 24320

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


The two young men of fashion were silent that evening as they drove to the Café Royal in the car which Lucas loosely called 'my car,' but which was his mother's and only to be obtained by him upon his own conditions after delicate diplomacies. The chief of his conditions was that the chauffeur should not accompany the car. Lucas, having been engaged upon outdoor work for the firm, had not seen George throughout the day. Further, he was late in calling for George, and therefore rather exacerbated in secret; and if George had not been ready and waiting for him at the club trouble might have arisen. George understood his host's mood and respected it. Lucas drove rapidly and fiercely, with appropriate frowns and settings of cruel teeth; his mien indeed had the arrogance of the performer who, having given only a fraction of his time to the acquirement of skill, reckons that he can beat the professional who has given the whole of his time. Lucas's glances at chauffeurs who hindered his swiftness were masterpieces of high disdain, and he would accelerate, after circumventing them, with positive ferocity.

George himself, an implacable critic, could not find fault with the technique of Lucas's driving. But exacerbation tells, even in the young, and at Piccadilly Circus, Lucas, in obeying a too suddenly uplifted hand of a policeman, stopped his engine. The situation, horribly humiliating for Lucas and also for George, provided pleasure for half the chauffeurs and drivers in Piccadilly Circus, and was the origin of much jocularity of a kind then fairly new. Lucas cursed the innocent engine, and George leapt down to wield the crank. But the engine, apparently resenting curses, refused to start again. No, it would not start. Lucas leapt down too. "Get out of the way," he muttered savagely to George, and scowled at the bonnet as if saying to the engine: "I'm not going to stand any of your infernal nonsense!" But still the engine refused to start.

The situation, humiliating before, was now appalling. Two entirely correct young gentlemen, in evening dress, with light overcoats and opera hats, struggling with a refractory car that in its obstinacy was far more dignified than themselves-and the car obstructing traffic at the very centre of the world in the very hour when the elect of Britain were driving by on the way to Tristan at the Opera! Sebastians both, they were martyrized by the poisoned arrows of vulgar wit, shot at them from all sides and especially from the lofty thrones of hansom-cab drivers. The policeman ordered them to shove the car to the kerb, and with the aid of a boy and the policeman himself they did so, opposite the shuttered front of Swan & Edgar's.

The two experts then examined the engine in a professional manner; they did everything but take it down; they tried in vain all known devices to conquer the recalcitrancy of engines; and when they had reached despair and fury George, startlingly visited by an idea, demanded:

"Any petrol in the tank?..." In those days men of fashion were apt to forget, at moments of crisis, that the first necessity of the engine was petrol. George behaved magnanimously. He might have extinguished Lucas with a single inflection as Lucas, shamed to the uttermost, poured a spare half-tin of petrol into the tank. He refrained.

In one minute, in less than one minute, they were at the side entrance to the Café Royal, which less than a minute earlier had been inconceivably distant and unattainable. Lucas dashed first into the restaurant. To keep ladies waiting in a public place was for him the very worst crime, surpassing in turpitude arson, embezzlement, and the murder of innocents. The ladies must have been waiting for a quarter of an hour, half an hour! His reputation was destroyed!

However, the ladies had not arrived.

"That's all right," Lucas breathed, at ease at last. The terrible scowl had vanished from his face, which was perfectly recomposed into its urbane, bland charm.

"Now perhaps you'll inform me who they are, old man," George suggested, relinquishing his overcoat to a flunkey, and following Lucas into the cloister set apart for the cleansing of hands which have meddled with machinery.

"The Wheeler woman is one-didn't I tell you?" Lucas answered, unsuccessfully concealing his pride.

"Wheeler?"

"Irene Wheeler. You know."

George was really impressed. Lucas had hitherto said no word as to his acquaintance with this celebrated woman. It was true that recently Lucas had been spreading himself in various ways-he had even passed his Intermediate-but George had not anticipated such a height of achievement as the feat of entertaining at a restaurant a cynosure like Irene Wheeler. George had expected quite another sort of company at dinner, for he had publicly dined with Lucas before. All day he had been abstracted, listless, and utterly desolate. All day he had gone over again and again the details of the interview with Mr. Haim, his telegram to Marguerite and her unspeakable telegram to him, hugging close a terrific grievance. Only from pique against Marguerite had he accepted Lucas's invitation. The adventure in Piccadilly Circus had somewhat enlivened him, and now the fluttering prospect of acquaintance with the legendary Irene Wheeler pushed Marguerite into the background of his mind, and excitement became quite pleasant. " And a Miss Ingram," Lucas added.

"Not Lois Ingram?" exclaimed George, suddenly dragging the names of Ingram and Wheeler out of the same drawer of his memory.

"No. Laurencine. But she has a sister named Lois. What do you know about her?" Lucas spoke challengingly, as if George had trespassed on preserves sacred to himself alone. He had not yet admitted that it was merely Mrs. John Orgreave who had put him in the way of Irene Wheeler.

George was surprised and shocked that it had never occurred to him to identify Lois Ingram's wealthy friend Miss Wheeler with the Irene Wheeler of society columns of newspapers. And Lois Ingram rose in his esteem, not because of the distinction of her friend, but because she had laid no boastful stress on the distinction of her friend.

"Don't you remember?" he said. "I told you once about a girl who jolly nearly got me into a motor accident all through her fancying herself as a chauffeur. That was Lois Ingram. Paris girl. Same lot, isn't it?"

"Oh! Was that Lois?" Lucas murmured. "Well, I'm dashed!"

They returned in a hurry to the entrance-hall, fearful lest the ladies might have arrived. However, the ladies had not arrived. Lucas had the inexpressible satisfaction of finding in an illustrated weekly a full-page portrait of Miss Irene Wheeler.

"Here you are!" he ejaculated, with an air of use, as though he was habitually picking up from the tables of fashionable restaurants high-class illustrated papers containing portraits of renowned beauties to whom he said "Come!" and they came. It was a great moment for Lucas.

Ten minutes later the ladies very calmly arrived, seeming perfectly unaware that they were three-quarters of an hour behind time. Lucas felt that, much as he already knew about life, he had learned something fresh.

To George, Irene Wheeler was not immediately recognizable as the original of her portrait. He saw the resemblance when he looked for it, but if after seeing the photograph he had met the woman in the street he would have passed her by unknowing. At first he was disappointed in her. He had never before encountered celebrated people-except architects, who, Enwright always said, never could be really celebrated-and he had to learn that celebrated people seldom differ in appearance from uncelebrated people. Nevertheless it was not to be expected that George should escape where the most experienced and the most wary of two capitals had not escaped. He did not agree that she was beautiful, but her complexion enthralled him. He had never seen such a complexion; nobody had ever seen such a complexion. It combined extremely marvellous whites and extremely marvellous pinks, and the skin had the exquisite, incredible softness of a baby's. Next he was struck by her candid, ingenuous, inquiring gaze, and by her thin voice with the slight occasional lisp. The splendid magnificence of her frock and jewels came into play later. Lastly her demeanour imposed itself. That simple gaze showed not the slightest diffidence, scarcely even modesty; it was more brazen than effrontery. She preceded the other three into the restaurant, where electricity had finally conquered the expiring daylight, and her entry obviously excited the whole room; yet, guided by two waving and fawning waiters, and a hundred glances upon her, she walked to the appointed table without a trace of self-consciousness-as naturally as a policeman down a street. When she sat down, George on her right, Lucas on her left, and the tall, virginal Laurencine Ingram opposite, she was the principal person in the restaurant. George had already passed from disappointment to an impressed nervousness. The inquisitive diners might all have been quizzing him instead of Irene Wheeler. He envied Lucas, who was talking freely to both Miss Wheeler and Laurencine about what he had ordered for dinner. That morning over a drawing-board and an architectural problem, Lucas had been humble enough to George, and George by natural right had laid the law down to Lucas; but now Lucas, who-George was obliged to admit-never said anything brilliant or original, was outshining him.... It was unquestionable that in getting Irene Wheeler to dinner, Lucas, by some mysterious talent which he possessed, had performed a feat greater even than George had at first imagined-a prodigious feat.

George waited for Irene Wheeler to begin to talk. She did not begin to talk. She was content with the grand function of existing. Lucas showed her the portrait in the illustrated paper, which he had kept. She said that it was comparatively an old one, and had been taken at the Durbar in January. "Were you at the Durbar?" asked the simpleton George. Irene Wheeler looked at him. "Yes. I was in the Viceroy's house-party," she answered mildly. And then she said to Lucas that she had sat three times to photographers that week-"They won't leave me alone"-but that the proofs were none of them satisfactory. At this Laurencine Ingram boldly and blushingly protested, maintaining that one of them was lovely. George was attracted to Laurencine, in whom he saw no likeness to her sister Lois. She could not long have left school. She was the product finished for the world; she had been taught everything that was considered desirable-even to the art of talking easily and yet virginally on all subjects at table; and she was a nice, honest, handsome girl, entirely unspoilt by the mysterious operations practised upon her. She related how she had been present when a famous photographer arrived at Miss Wheeler's flat with his apparatus, and what the famous photographer had said. The boys laughed. Miss Wheeler smiled faintly. "I'm glad we didn't have to go to that play to-night," she remarked, quitting photography. "However, I shall have to go to-morrow night. And I don't care for first nights in London, only they will have me go." In this last phrase, and in the intonation of it, was the first sign she had given of her American origin; her speech was usually indistinguishable from English English, which language she had in fact carefully acquired years earlier. George gathered that Lucas's success in getting Miss Wheeler to dinner was due to the accident of a first night being postponed at the last moment and Miss Wheeler thus finding herself with an empty evening. He covertly examined her. Why was the feat of getting Miss Wheeler to dinner enormous? Why would photographers not leave her alone? Why would theatrical managers have her accept boxes gratis which they could sell for money? Why was she asked to join the Viceregal party for the Durbar? Why was the restaurant agog? Why was he himself proud and flattered-yes, proud and flattered-to be seen at the same table with her?... She was e

xcessively rich, no doubt; she was reputed to be the niece of a railway man in Indianapolis who was one of the major rivals of Harriman. She dressed superbly, perhaps too superbly. But there were innumerable rich and well-dressed women on earth. After all, she put her gold bag and her gloves down on the table with just the same gesture as other women did; and little big Laurencine had a gold bag too. She was not witty. He questioned whether she was essentially kind. She was not young; her age was an enigma. She had not a remarkable figure, nor unforgettable hair, nor incendiary eyes. She seemed too placid and self-centred for love. If she had loved, it must have been as she sat to photographers or occupied boxes on first nights-because 'they' would have it so. George was baffled to discover the origin of her prestige. He had to seek it in her complexion. Her complexion was indubitably miraculous. He enjoyed looking at it, though he lacked the experience to know that he was looking at a complexion held by connoisseurs who do naught else but look at complexions to be a complexion unique in Europe. George, unsophisticated, thought that the unaffected simplicity-far exceeding self-confidence-with which she acquiesced in her prestige was perhaps more miraculous than her complexion. It staggered him.

The dinner was a social success. Irene Wheeler listened adroitly, if without brilliance, and after one glass of wine George found himself quite able to talk in the Enwright manner about architecture and the profession of architecture, and also to talk about automobiles. The casualness with which he mentioned his Final Examination was superb-the examiners might have been respectfully waiting for him to arrive and discomfit them. But of course the main subject was automobiles. Even Laurencine knew the names of all the leading makers, and when the names of all the leading makers had been enumerated and their products discussed, the party seemed to think that it had accomplished something that was both necessary and stylish. When the tablecloth had been renewed, and the solemn moment came for Everard Lucas to order liqueurs, George felt almost gay. He glanced round the gilded and mirrored apartment, now alluringly animated by the subdued yet vivacious intimacies of a score of white tables, and decided that the institution of restaurants was a laudable and agreeable institution. Marguerite had receded further than ever into the background of his mind; and as for the Final, it had diminished to a formality.

"And you?" Everard asked Laurencine, after Miss Wheeler.

George had thought that Laurencine was too young for liqueurs. She had had no wine. He expected her to say 'Nothing, thanks,' as conventionally as if her late head mistress had been present. But she hesitated, smiling, and then, obedient to the profound and universal instinct which seems to guide all young women to the same liqueur, she said:

"May I have a crême de menthe ? I've never had crême de menthe ."

George was certainly shocked for an instant. But no one else appeared to be shocked. Miss Wheeler, in charge of Laurencine, offered no protest. And then George reflected: "And why not? Why shouldn't she have a crême de menthe ?" When Laurencine raised the tiny glass to her firm, large mouth, George thought that the sight of the young virginal thing tasting a liqueur was a fine and a beautiful sight.

"It's just heavenly!" murmured Laurencine ecstatically.

Miss Wheeler was gazing at George.

"What's the matter?" he demanded, smiling, and rested one elbow on the table and looked enigmatically through the smoke of his cigar.

"I was just wondering about you," said Miss Wheeler. Her voice, always faint, had dropped to a murmur which seemed to expire as it reached George's ear.

"Why?" He was flattered.

"I've been wanting to see you."

"Really!" he laughed, rather too loudly. "What a pity I didn't know earlier!" He was disturbed as well as flattered, for such a remark from such a person as Irene Wheeler to such a person as himself was bound to be disturbing. His eyes sought audaciously to commune with hers, but hers were not responsive; they were entirely non-committal.

"You are the man that wouldn't let my friend Lois drive him in my car, aren't you?"

"Yes," he said defiantly, but rather guiltily. "Did she tell you about that? It's an awful long time ago."

"She told me something about it."

"And you've remembered it all this long while!"

"Yes," she answered, and her thin, queer tone and her tepid, impartial glance had the effect of a challenge to him to justify himself.

"And don't you think I was quite right?" he ventured.

"She drives very well." It was not the sort of answer he was expecting. His desire was to argue.

"She didn't drive very well then," he said, with conviction.

"Was that a reason for your leaving her to drive home alone?"

Women were astounding!

"She ought to have let the chauffeur drive," he maintained.

"Ah! A man mustn't expect too much from a woman."

"But I was risking my life in that car! Do you mean to say I ought to have kept on risking it?"

"I don't express any opinion on that. That was for you to decide.... You must admit it was very humiliating for poor Lois."

He felt himself cornered, but whether justly or unjustly he was uncertain.

"Was she vexed?"

"No, she wasn't vexed. Lois isn't the woman to be vexed. But I have an idea she was a little hurt."

"Did she say so?"

"Say so? Lois? She'd never say anything against anybody. Lois is a perfect angel.... Isn't she, Laurencine?"

Laurencine was being monopolized by Everard.

"What did you say?" the girl asked, collecting herself.

"I was just saying what an angel Lois is."

"Oh, she is !" the younger sister agreed, with immense and sincere emphasis.

George, startled, said to himself suddenly:

"Was I mistaken in her? Some girls you are mistaken in! They're regular bricks, but they keep it from you at first."

Somehow, in spite of a slight superficial mortification, he was very pleased by the episode of the conversation, and his curiosity was titillated.

"Lois would have come to-night instead of Laurencine," Miss Wheeler went on, "only she wasn't feeling very well."

"Is she in London? I've only seen her once from that day to this, and then we didn't get near each other owing to the crush. So we didn't speak. It was at Mrs. Orgreave's."

"Yes, I know."

"Did she tell you?"

"Yes."

"Is she at your flat?"

"Yes; but she's not well."

"Not in bed, I hope, or anything like that?"

"Oh no! She's not in bed."

Laurencine threw laughingly across the table:

"She's as well as I am."

It was another aspect of the younger sister.

When they left the restaurant it was nearly empty. They left easily, slowly, magnificently. The largesse of Everard Lucas-his hat slightly raked-in the foyer and at the portico was magnificent in both quantity and manner. There was no need to hurry; the hour, though late for the end of dinner, was early for separation. They moved and talked without the slightest diffidence, familiar and confident; the whole world was reformed and improved for them by the stimulus of food and alcohol. The night was sultry and dark. The two women threw their cloaks back from their shoulders, revealing the whiteness of toilettes. At the door the head-lights of Miss Wheeler's automobile shot horizontally right across Regent Street. The chauffeur recognized George, and George recognized the car; he was rather surprised that Miss Wheeler had not had a new car in eighteen months. Lucas spoke of his own car, which lay beyond in the middle of the side-street like a ship at anchor. He spoke in such a strain that Miss Wheeler deigned to ask him to drive her home in it. The two young men went to light the head-lights. George noticed the angry scowl on Everard's face when three matches had been blown out in the capricious breeze. The success of the fourth match restored his face to perfect benignity. He made the engine roar triumphantly, imperiously sounded his horn, plunged forward, and drew the car up in front of Miss Wheeler's. His bliss, when Miss Wheeler had delicately inserted herself into the space by his side, was stern and yet radiant. The big car, with George and Laurencine on board, followed the little one like a cat following a mouse, and Laurencine girlishly interested herself in the chase. George, with his mind on Lois, kept saying to himself: "She's been thinking about that little affair ever since last November but one. They've all been thinking about it." He felt apprehensive, but his satisfaction amounted to excitement. His attitude was: "At any rate I gave them something to think about!" Also he breathed appreciatively the atmosphere of the three women-two seen and one unseen. How extraordinarily different all of them were from Agg! They reminded him acutely of his deep need of luxury. After all, the life lived by those two men about town, George and Everard, was rather humdrum and monotonous. In spite of Everard's dash, and in spite of George's secret engagement, neither of them met enough women or enough sorts of women. George said to himself: "I shall see her to-night. We shall go up to the flat. She isn't in bed. I shall see her to-night." He wanted to see her because he had hurt her, and because she had remembered and had talked about him and had raised curiosity about him in others. Was she really unwell? Or had she been excusing herself! Was she an angel? He wanted to see her again in order to judge for himself whether she was an angel. If Laurencine said she was an angel she must be an angel. Laurencine was a jolly, honest girl. To be in the car with her was agreeable. But she was insipid. So he assessed the splendidly budding Laurencine, patronizing her a little. Miss Wheeler gave him pause. Her simple phrases had mysterious intonations. He did not understand her glance. He could not settle the first question about her-her age. She might be very wicked; certainly she could be very ruthless. And he had no hold over her. He could give her nothing that she wanted. He doubted whether any man could.

"Have you been in London long?" he asked Laurencine.

"A week," she said. "I came over with Miss Wheeler. I didn't think mother would let me, but she did."

"And did your sister come with you?"

"No; Lois only came yesterday."

"By herself?"

"Yes."

"I suppose you go about a lot?"

"Oh, we do It's such a change from Paris."

"Well, I should prefer Paris."

"You wouldn't! London's much more romantic. Paris is so hard and matter-of-fact."

"So's London."

She squirmed about lissomly on the seat.

"You don't know what I mean," she said. "I never can make people see what I mean-about anything."

He smiled indulgently and dropped the point.

"Miss Wheeler taken you to Mrs. Orgreave's yet?"

"Yes; we were there on Saturday afternoon."

"Well, what do you think of Mrs. Orgreave?"

"Oh! She's very nice," Laurencine answered, with polite tepidity; and added eagerly: "Mr. Orgreave's a dear."

George was glad that she had not been enthusiastic about Mrs. Orgreave. Her reserve showed that she could discriminate. Ecstasy was not altogether a habit. If she said that Lois was an angel, Lois probably was an angel.

The cars stopped at the foot of a huge block of masonry in a vast leafy square. George suddenly became very nervous. He thought: "I shall be seeing her in a minute."

Then, as he got out of the car, he heard Miss Wheeler saying to Lucas:

"Well, good night. And thank you so much. It's been most delightful.... We expect you soon, of course."

She actually was not asking them to go up! George was excessively disappointed. He watched Miss Wheeler and Laurencine disappear into the rich and guarded interior with envy, as though they had entered a delectable paradise to which he could not aspire; and the fact that Miss Wheeler had vaguely invited him to call did not brighten him very much. He had assumed that he would see Lois the angel that night.

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